In the last few years, there has been a huge revival in the reissue market for African music from the 60s and 70s. Prior to these reissues, hearing this music meant procuring original pressings which were rare, and expensive. These reissues have been a cash cow for quite a few labels, many who wouldn’t exist without this timeless music. This isn’t condemnation on my part; I think the rediscovery is a wonderful thing. Unless you were around to experience the music firsthand, or have older relatives who did, this is new music for most people, Africans included. I am firmly rooted in Nigerian music, but many of the reissues from other African countries are new to me as well, so I am grateful.
However, something missing from the dialogue in a lot of these reissues is African people. It’s somewhat disheartening to see that most of the discussion centred on these reissues happens through a western lens. A lens that sometimes doesn’t fully grasp the nuances and subtleties of various African cultures. For instance, I remember one writer asking me to interpret one of Fela Kuti's songs where he was singing in Yoruba. I told him I didn't understand it either. He was perplexed because he thought since I was Nigerian (like Fela), that we spoke the same language. I had to explain that my parents are Igbo and Andoni, so Yoruba wasn't a language I'd automatically understand. He then confused pidgin for Yoruba. I had to further explain that Fela started singing in pidgin instead of only in Yoruba so all Nigerians would be able to understand him, and that pidgin was a lingua franca all Nigerians and most West Africans could understand. I’m still not sure he fully got it.
A conversation like that isn’t one I would have with an African writer. They would understand it all going in. I don’t expect the average western listener to understand the subtleties and differences of African cultures, but this is a guy who makes his living writing about music. That puts him in a position of authority, yet he was clueless about critical details like that. This is why I'm always wary about African narratives written by non-Africans. A lot gets lost in translation.
If it isn’t lost in translation, then there will be references made with words like ‘wild’, ‘primal’, ‘primitive’, ‘tribal’ etc. Those are words that would never be used to describe western music. If you’re going to write about something, you should have a comprehensive knowledge of the subject matter. Many people think a working knowledge would suffice, but I disagree. Would you go to a doctor who knew just enough to get by? Not likely. We go to specialists because of their expertise, not because they know a little bit. It would also help matters if the writer did not have an intrinsic bias. Unfortunately, many people in the west don’t know that they have it, but if you have described African music (art in general) with words like wild, primal or primitive, then you have a biased lens, and you probably shouldn’t be opining about it. There is nothing primitive about mastering an instrument and playing it well. That takes skill.
Part of the reason for the lack of interest that some Africans have in both writing about and listening to the classics is that they are simply unaware of its existence. It's not on their radar, and it never was. If you were born in the 80s or 90s, the music will be foreign to you. Although I grew up in the 80s myself, I did not grow up in a conventional home. My father was an African history professor, scholar, and author, so we grew up proud of all things indigenous. As the youngest in the family, I was exposed to the Nigerian music my older sisters and relatives listened to. Not to mention that whenever you went to the market, all the people there played Nigerian music.
However, in Nigeria during the 80s, most of my friends wanted to emulate LL Cool J, Run DMC and other American rappers. That was popular with young people. In addition to rap, musicians like Michael Jackson, New Edition, Bobby Brown and groups like Soul II Soul were insanely popular.
When I was in primary school in Port Harcourt during the 80s, kids used to make fun of Fela as that crazy man who smokes igbo (weed), doesn't wear trousers and dances in his underwear. It was music we generally regarded as something older people listened to. I wanted to listen to rap too. Of course, as I matured my tastes evolved, but the seed of appreciation was planted because I had been hearing Fela, King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey and stuff like that all throughout my formative years at home. Many are not that fortunate. When I went to either one of my parent's village, people still listened to Nigerian music, as opposed to the city where it was mostly western music. As urbanisation becomes a reality for more Africans, I fear we might come to the point where this music becomes completely forgotten by us.
My full appreciation for it didn't come until my teens when I was already in the US. I have found that many Nigerians back home want to emulate western fashion, styles and music, whereas many Nigerians (and Africans in general) who are abroad gradually develop a deeper appreciation of their own customs and traditions, and want to retain some semblance of it either through food, music, clothing, or just cultural awareness in general. Oftentimes, Nigerians abroad are more abreast about the happenings in Nigeria than many Nigerians back at home are. They stay on top of things with vigilance. That vigilance is the last vestige they have as a connection back home, so it becomes very strong in all facets of their life. I’ve found that this is applicable to most Africans abroad.
While I have no delusions that this music will spread like wildfire, and that everyone will be listening to these “old” songs, I believe that if there is more awareness, there will be significant interest. We need to do more to promote it in the African diaspora. We can’t blame anyone but ourselves for the lack of interest in our heritage if we don’t appreciate and champion our own music. Or if we keep waiting for artists like J. Cole to sample something before we realise it’s actually good music. These reissues will definitely resonate with Africans abroad since they will most likely have the disposable income and access to readily buy the records.
In my next article, I will take a look at some of the great reissues of the last two years. New music can sometimes be 40 years old.